Deirdre Fleming, Outdoors reporter with the Portland Press Herald, paddles along the Spurwink River shortly after sunset on May 27. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

CAPE ELIZABETH — Waterbirds, a purple sunset, crashing ocean waves and a clear, starlit night drew three paddlers to the Spurwink River in late May. 

Who cares if we never saw the moon rise a day after the full moon? (Our excursion was postponed by one night because of thunderstorms.) Who cares that we timed the launch too close to the turning tide and had to push our water crafts through inches of water and mud on the first leg of the paddle? We had researched our course with veteran paddlers – and knew the hazards.

In the end, our team didn’t even care that we ended up down a Spurwink Marsh dead end at the finish of the two-hour outing. Paddling under the stars on a warm May evening was ample reward.

“We’d have missed all the adventure (if we didn’t go),” said Press Herald photographer Shawn Patrick Ouellette.

Ouellette, his youngest daughter, Taylor, and I came to paddle here to research the nuts and bolts of a do-it-yourself full-moon paddle outing. 

Full-moon paddles are a tradition in Maine at land trusts and conservation non-profits. With 70 years of combined paddling experience between Shawn Ouellette and me, we set out on our own to find out how difficult and, with a safe approach, how delightful a full-moon paddle can be.

Plenty of research with local paddlers went into the trip plan and chosen course. In the end, the safety of the team was the top consideration at every turn in the marsh.

There are dozens of boating accidents and a number of fatalities in the state every year. Maine had 35 boating accidents and four deaths on inland and coastal waters alone in 2019, the most recent year of data from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Deirdre Fleming packs a bag of essentials for an evening paddle on the Spurwink River. Water, a first aid kit, flashlight and a tow rope were some of the items included in the kit. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story about how many new paddlers get into trouble. Beginner paddlers make up 27 percent of all boating deaths on inland and coastal waters nationwide, said Jim Emmons the executive director of the Water Sports Foundation.

We brought a fair amount of safety gear in a watertight bag, including flashlights and headlamps, extra clothing, water, a first-aid kit, compact Army survival blanket, bug spray and a tow rope. We left a detailed trip plan and our expected return with family members before setting out. We also brought life jackets and a compass, because on such sunset outings, guides say, paddlers can get turned around in Maine’s serpentine marsh rivers.

Shawn Ouellette, whose family has been in Maine for seven generations and who learned to paddle a canoe 45 years ago, paddled with his daughter. Their Old Town Tripper is a family heirloom that his father bought when he was 8 – and their family clearly has put some miles on it.

He photographed a great blue heron dining on a catch. And we paddled past three glossy ibises and various terns foraging. 

Taylor Ouellette, a veteran backcountry camper, had never paddled after sunset. She relished the opportunity to paddle under the stars.

To launch near sunset and the rising moon we had to paddle out just after low tide. But we had the benefit of the incoming tide for our hour paddle back to the boat launch.

A great blue heron eats its catch along the banks of the Spurwink River. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Given that, we pushed the trip from 90 minutes to two hours to linger at the river’s mouth – just shy of Higgins Beach, where we bobbed on the tidal water while listening to waves crashing on the beach. A dog with a neon-blue glow collar ran back and forth on the shore fussing at us – looking like an alien being in the near-dark.

On the paddle back we chose not to pull out flashlights but to navigate, instead, by feel with our oars as we searched for the deepest channels, which you couldn’t see in the serpentine river.

As fireflies came out and Taylor Ouellette spotted shooting stars, we were silent and content. It was worth all the preparation, the work paddling against the tide on the way out – and our slow, measured approach.

But you don’t have to do a full-moon or evening paddle by yourself – nor should you if you lack experience. Maine has many groups that host full-moon paddles. 

The nine or so full-moon paddle trips on the Dunstan River led by the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center staff sell out every year. There is even a sea kayak guide in Castine who specializes in night-time ocean paddles during meteor showers. 

Consider hiring a guide, or joining a full-moon paddle offered by a conservation group. Costs range from $15 to $70, depending on the trip and the guiding service. But definitely go at least once during a clear night around the full moon.

Here are some resources:

Castine Kayak Adventures, Castine, castinekayak.com: Trips for meteor showers and moon-lit paddles are offered throughout the summer. Cost is $75 for three hours.

Hirundo Wildlife Refuge, Old Town, hirundomaine.org: Cost is $18 adults, $6 for children for tours held each of the next five months. To learn more, see the refuge Facebook page.

Sebago Trails Paddling Co., Raymond, sebagotrails.com: Two-hour guided trips during the full moon are offered three times this summer around Sebago Lake’s Jordan Bay. Cost is $59 for adults; $49 for youth.

Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, Scarborough, maineaudubon.org: Ninety-minute full-moon trips are offered three times a month in June, July and August. Cost is $16. Sunset tours are also given.


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